Gender neutrality

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Gendered bathroom signage, Sweden, 2008

Gender neutrality (adjective form: gender-neutral), also known as gender-neutralism or the gender neutrality movement, describes the idea that policies, language, and other social institutions should avoid distinguishing roles according to people's sex or gender, in order to avoid discrimination arising from the impression that there are social roles for which one gender is more suited than another.

In policy[edit]

Gender neutral bathroom signage, California, United States, 2016
Gender neutral bathroom signage, United States, 2017

Proponents of gender neutrality may support public policies designed to eliminate gender distinctions, such as gender-neutral bathrooms, with public restrooms being available without distinguishing the gender of the person using them. It has been observed that gender neutrality in the law has changed the nature of custody disputes, making it more likely that men will be awarded custody of their children in the event of a divorce.[1]

The legal definition of gender has been a controversial topic particularly to transgender people; in some countries in order to be legally defined as a new sex people must first undergo sterilization.[2]

California joined Oregon in its effort to recognize gender neutrality. On October 15, 2017 California governor Jerry Brown signed new legislation into law that allows persons the option to select gender-neutral on state identification cards.[3]

Gray areas in gender[edit]

An issue related to gender neutrality is the gray areas that exist in gender. Trying to legally define the boundaries of gender has proven a difficult issue with the existence of people who identify or who are identified by others as intersex, third gender, transgender and more generally genderqueer or non-binary.

Gender blindness[edit]

Someone who identifies as gender blind takes the perspective of gender neutrality in everyday life.

Gender-neutral language[edit]

Gender-neutral language, gender-inclusive language, inclusive language or gender neutrality is a form of linguistic prescriptivism that aims to eliminate (or neutralize) reference to gender in terms that describe people. This can involve discouragement of the use of gender-specific job titles, such as policeman/policewoman, fireman, stewardess, and, arguably, chairman, in favour of corresponding gender-neutral terms such as police officer, firefighter, flight attendant and chairperson (or chair). Other gender-specific terms, such as actor and actress, may be replaced by the originally male term (actor used for either gender).

The pronouns he or she may be replaced with they when the gender of the person referred to is unknown. Some also advocate for a gender-neutral pronoun to be used even when the sex of a person is known, in an effort to remove the alleged subconscious effects of language in reinforcing gender and gender stereotypes.[citation needed] In addition, those who do not identify as either female or male may use a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to themselves or have others refer to them.

In 2012, a gender-neutral pronoun "hen" was proposed in Sweden. Swedish was the first language to officially add a third neutral pronoun. "Hen" can be used to describe anyone regardless of their sex or gender identification.[4]

Gender-neutral pronouns that have been proposed in the United States have not had widespread use outside of LGBTQ communities.[4] The practice of gender-neutral language is highly encouraged among law students and the Supreme Court of the United States. However, research has shown that only one judge on the Supreme Court consistently uses gender-neutral language.[5]

LGBTQ activists have suggested that the pronouns "he/she and his/her linguistically enforce a normative two sex system" where one must fall into the gender binary of either male or female. There is a growing variety of several different gender-neutral pronouns. These may include sie, hir, hirs, and hirself, and also include "z" or "p". Some argue that only changing pronouns to be gender-neutral for people who are "sex/gender" ambiguous creates someone "other" than the norm. A proposed solution to this issue is to move towards the use of inclusive language and gender-neutral pronouns for everyone.[6]

"Gender-neutral language" should not be confused with "genderless language", which refers to a language that does not have grammatical gender.

Relationship to feminism and masculism[edit]

Gender neutrality emphasizes the equal treatment of men and women and people of any other gender legally with no discrimination whatsoever. This goal is in principle shared with both feminists and masculists. However, in gender neutralism, the emphasis is on transcending the perspective of gender altogether rather than focusing on the rights of specific genders.

Relationship to transhumanism[edit]

Gender neutrality or "gender transcendence" is part of the transhumanist concept of postgenderism.

Advocates of postgenderism argue that the presence of gender roles, social stratification, and cogno-physical disparities and differences are generally to the detriment of individuals and society. Given the radical potential for advanced assistive reproductive options, postgenderists believe that sex for reproductive purposes will either become obsolete, or that all post-gendered humans will have the ability, if they so choose, to both carry a pregnancy to term and father a child, which, postgenderists believe, would have the effect of eliminating the need for definite genders in such a society.[7]

In marketing[edit]

Marketing is often focused on targeting specific demographics and creates products focused on specific genders. Public views on gender-specific marketing have gained media attention in recent years, for example a protest against a bic pen "Bic for her" that was targeted towards women by the posting of thousands of fake reviews of the pen mocking its female-specific advertising.[8]

Children's toys[edit]

In the marketing of children's toys, gender-specific marketing has been very prevalent. According to a study conducted in 2012,[9] "children learn about the toys seen as appropriate for their gender not only from adults and children but also through the media, which serves as an important source of socialization and gender socialization." Color palettes and types of toys are gendered characteristics of the toys marketed to either boys or girls. The results of the study mentioned above, showed that "toys that were pastel colored were much more likely to be marketed as toys for 'only girls', while bold colored toys were much more likely to be marketed as toys for 'boys only'" and also found that blue was a more gender-neutral color. Action toys, like cars, weapons, and building toys are marketed toward boys, while toys that have to do with beauty and domestic work are marketed towards girls. Some toys, like stuffed animals, proven to be gender-neutral and are usually marketed to both boys and girls.[10] Parent's also play a large role in building their children's gender socialization, as they are the ones buying the toys for their children.[11] Popularity of making toy advertising gender neutral has been increasing such as ads showing boys playing with baby dolls (a toy that has commonly been marketed towards girls only in the past).[12]

Fashion[edit]

In the marketing of fashion lines, designers are beginning to design gender-neutral clothing, that is not labeling their clothing as either "men's" or "women's", but depends on suitable for men and women. Many sportswear are now include gender neutrality in order to promote gender equality for men and women.

In education[edit]

There has been some advancement in the incorporation of gender neutrality within the classroom. Attempts to encourage this mentality in schools are demonstrated by institutions such as Nicolaigarden and Egalia, two preschools in Sweden. Their efforts to replace terms “girl” and “boy” to the gender neutral pronoun “hen” grants students the ability to challenge or cross gender boundaries.[13] There are however, implicit biases within the faculty and staff in schools that ultimately prevent gender fluidity in classroom settings. In a study done in 2016 that measured teacher's facilitations of gender-typed and gender- neutral activities during free play, it was concluded that teachers facilitated masculine activities at higher rates than feminine. It is suggested by the study that, "Informing teachers about this trend may prompt teachers to reflect on their own teaching practices and serve as a catalyst for the promotion of teaching practices that create classroom environments in which boys and girls receive support for engagement with a variety of classroom activities."[14] Other suggestions and pursuits to broaden the mentality behind gender neutrality in schools include

  • allowing for gender-neutral prom and homecoming attendance and courts to accommodate same-sex-coupled and transgender participants
  • designating gender-neutral bathrooms and on-campus housing[15]
  • establishing gender-neutral and co-ed fraternal student organizations
  • not separating toys in gender-specific areas
  • not having gender-specific sports in physical education lessons[16]

Dress code[edit]

The abolishment of certain dress codes has been conserved amongst institutions depending on the limitations imposed on students and their comfort in such attire. For transgender students, strict dress codes may complicate their path towards confirming their gender identity, a cost which can affect these individuals well throughout their life. Ways in which compliance with attire in institutions can cause reverberations in other areas of life are factors such as a lowered academic performance, higher dropout rates, and increased disciplinary action.[17] As of 2017, 150 primary schools in the United Kingdom have introduced gender neutral uniforms and students feel more in control their identity as a result to this policy change.[18]

College[edit]

In 2005, University of California, Riverside became the first public university campus in the US to offer a gender-neutral housing option.[19] A February 2014 Washington Post article noted that nearly 150 US schools now have gender-neutral housing programs.[15] Other institutions such as University of Southern California and Princeton,[20] acknowledge some of the dangers that come as a result to housing options as a member of the LGBTQ community and have also developed separate housing to accommodate such students.[21]

In 2016, La Salle University students voted to have a gender-neutral housing option in their dormitories, which would make La Salle the first Catholic university in the United States to offer gender-neutral living.[22] This student-led vote caused controversy in Catholic circles across the United States, since it is traditional for Catholic school residence halls to be completely separated by gender.[23] La Salle University has since incorporated accommodating housing options for students and has urged other Catholic universities to make changes in housing policies as well.[24]

In parenting[edit]

Helen Davies describes gender as "the classification of male or female that includes social, psychological, and intellectual characteristics. The theory of gender neutrality is a theory that claims that biological sex does not inevitably determine social, psychological, and intellectual characteristics."[25] Parental control strategies can be defined as any strategy that a parent uses to alter, change, or influence their child's behavior, thoughts, or feelings. Meta-analysis reveals from Endendijk, "the basis of gender neutral parenting also known as GNP, does not project a gender onto a child. It allows parents and children to break away from gender binary."[26] Gender neutral parenting is allowing children to be exposed to a variety of gender types so children can explore their gender without restriction from society or the gender they were born with. Autonomy-supportive strategies provide the child with an appropriate amount of control, a desired amount of choice, acknowledge the child's perspectives, and provide the child with meaningful rationales when choice is constrained. Even if a child does not display gender bending behaviors, GNP allows them to explore and not be constrained from the gender they were born with. This can be through letting them play with non-stereotypical toys for their gender, allowing them to pick their own clothing, allowing them to act more "feminine" or masculine", and allowing children to question their gender. In the sociology book Sex Differences In Social Behavior: A Social Role Interpretation, Alice Eagly theorizes that sex differences have been proposed, based on biological factors, early childhood socialization, and other perspectives. This allows children to express themselves without feeling pressure from being extremely masculine or feminine.[27] They will also be granted exposure to gender roles and be able to think critically about them at a young age.

In children's literature[edit]

Gender neutrality in children's literature refers to the idea that publishers, writers and illustrators should avoid marketing towards children through the basis of their sex or gender, and should instead focus on expanding content rather than reinforcing social and gender roles.[28] Gender roles and stereotypes permeate our culture and are established through a variety of means such as visual culture or daily interactions with family and peers.[29] Topics of gender neutrality and gender performativity have been discussed in a broader sense amongst scholars such as Judith Butler in Undoing Gender and Gender Trouble in relation to other aspects of society such as in the case of David Reimer.[30] In relation to children's marketing, gender neutrality is a growing movement amongst parents, children and publishers.[31] Although there are many homes to gender stereotypes, the books that children are encountering have both psychological and social uses during a time when children are constantly constructing ideas from information around them and assimilating new knowledge with previous knowledge.[32] Organizations such as Let Toys Be Toys, Let Books Be Books and Pinkstinks have been gaining publicity for their work in favour of gender neutrality within children's literature and toys.

Representations of gender within picture books[edit]

With the emphasis placed on children's literature today, especially the genre of the picture book, parental and feminist groups have been increasingly vocal on the social implications of gender-specific marketing and the limitations they impose on children.[33]

Studies at Provider-Parent Partnerships have shown that children begin forming their sense of gender identity at 2–3 years old and begin 'Gender typing' at ages 3–4.[34] In a study surrounding Gender Perception in Adults, Dr. Kyle Pruett reported: "A defining moment came in gender difference research when a group of male babies were dressed in pink, and then handed to adults who were told they were girls. The adults responded with language and handling styles shown to be classically female-stereotypic: "adorable, cuddly, sweet, cute," etc. Female babies in blue were called "slugger, tough, strong, stubborn," etc. This is how we simply wind up reinforcing gender-stereotypic behaviors, rather than fostering individual growth and development."[35]

The concept of a child developing their sense of self in formative years has been a topic of discussion amongst cultural theorists as well as in children's literature criticism. In The Pleasures of Children's Literature, Shulamith Shahar states, "Child raising practices and educational methods as well as parent-child relation are determined not solely by biological laws but are also culturally constructed".[36]

Theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Judith Butler have contributed to this notion of the formation of an individual's subjectivity and sense of self. Lacan's concept of the mirror stage has contributed to modern understanding of subjectivity and has since been applied to Children's Literature Criticism and child development. The Mirror Stage refers to the process in which an infant recognizes itself in the mirror for the first time and, "the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image".[37] As Hamida Bosmajian has stated in Understanding Children's Literature, "The literary text, then, is an image of the unconscious structured like a language." Bosmajian proceeds to write, "When the [Mirror Stage] is given utterance in the reader-interpreter's language, [the meaning] is deferred."[38]

Judith Butler's notion of gender performativity also forms correlations to gender-specific children's literature through analyzing the ways characters perform their gender and has been taken up in Children's literature criticism.[39] Butler has defined gender performativity stating: "the production actually happens through a certain kind of repetition and recitation".[40] Butler also relays that, "Performativity is the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed."[40] Although Butler's subject is the adult subject the concept of repetition transcends to themes of childhood as well.[41] Both Butler and Lacan consider repetition as being an underlying factor in forming one's identity which can then be applied to children's literature through the act of children rereading books multiple times.[42]

Studies in representation in children's literature[edit]

Gender imbalances have continued to appear in children's literature through the lack of diverse representations. In the 2011 issue of Gender & Society, the study "Gender in Twentieth-Century Children's Books" discovered large disparities. Through looking at almost 6,000 children's books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found that males are central characters in 57% of children's books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.[43][44] In putting forth these narrow representations of characters, it becomes difficult for a child to identify themselves within gender binaries and roles.[45] In an earlier study in 1971, out of fifty-eight books, twenty-five had a picture of a woman somewhere in them, yet only four did not having a woman (or animal representing a woman) wearing an apron.[46] Many parents read their own childhood favourites to their children, through an endearing plot, or through beautiful illustrations.[47] Although the adult may recognize that the stereotypes may be outdated, the children may lack that criticality in reading these stories.[48] Furthering this portrayal of gender in children's books the ways in which each gender is portrayed is very different. Female characters are much more likely to take on passive and supportive roles whereas male characters fulfill a self-sufficient, strong and active role.[49] This discriminatory portrayal takes place in many children's books and runs the risk of leading children toward a misrepresented and misguided realization of their true potential in their expanding world.[50]

Not only are these inequalities present within the books, but gender disparities also exist amongst those creating children's books. In the 2013 Vida: Women in Literary Arts count, male authors and illustrators drastically outnumbered those who were female (64:21).[51]

In children's literature in the media[edit]

In March 2014, the British organization, Let Toys Be Toys, expanded to include a children's book specific category, Let Books Be Books. This expansion specifically addressed gender specific titles on books such as The Beautiful Girl's Colouring Book and The Brilliant Boys Colouring Book and the limitations in which these titles impose upon children. As Katy Guest stated in an article for the Independent in March 2014, after Let Books Be Books launched, "What we are doing by pigeon-holing children is badly letting them down. And books, above all things, should be available to any child who is interested in them."[52] As the organization Let Toys Be Toys states, "Just like labelling toys 'for girls' or 'for boys' these books send out very limiting messages to children about what kinds of things are appropriate for girls or for boys."[53]

The organization quickly gained momentum and almost immediately acquired over 3000 signatures for their petition causing publishers Parragon and Usborne to lend their support and stop publishing gender specific children's books.[31] In November 2014, publishers of Peter and Jane Books, Ladybird Books agreed to make titles gender neutral stating: 'At Ladybird, we certainly don't want to be seen to be limiting children in any way."[54]

Controversy[edit]

Publishers such as Igloo Books and Buster Books continue to publish gender-specific children's books. In an interview in March 2014 Buster Editor Michael O'Mara stated: "The proof is in the pudding. Our two best children books ever are The Boys' Book and The Girls' Book. The boys' one included things like how to make a bow and arrow and how to play certain sports and you'd get things about style and how to look cool in the girls' book. 2,000 people signed this petition [in the first day], but we sold 500,000 copies of The Girls' Book. These statistics tell me I'm going in the right direction."[55]

In a letter in response to this interview Let Books Be Books expressed the following concerns to Michael O'Mara: "We have been contacted by many parents, teachers and supporters who have serious concerns about several of the titles currently on your website and being marketed in shops across the UK. They believe, as we do, that labelling books by gender narrows children's choices and imaginations by telling them what they 'should' be reading, instead of letting them choose books that interest them."[56]

List of gender-neutral children's literature[edit]

Although there are many examples of gender-neutral children's literature, the following list contains a few notable examples.

  • John Dough and the Cherub – L. Frank Baum
  • Black Dog – Levi Pinfold
  • How To – Julie Morstad
  • How to Heal a Broken WingBob Graham
  • Little YouRichard Van Camp & ill. Julie Flett
  • One Night, Far From Here – Julia Wauters
  • Once Upon a Northern Night – Jean E. Pendziwol & ill. Isabelle Arsenault
  • Ruby's School WalkKathryn White & ill. Miriam Latimer
  • Samuel's Baby – Mark Elkin & ill. Amy Wummer
  • Spork – Kyo Maclear & ill. Isabelle Arsenault
  • Super Daisy – Kes Gray & ill. Nick Sharratt
  • The Big Brother – Stephanie Dagg & ill. Alan Clarke
  • The King & the Seed – Eric Maddern & ill. Paul Hess
  • The Sunflower Sword – Mark Sperring & ill. Mirian Latimer
  • We Go Together!: A Curious Selection of Affectionate Verse – Calef Brown
  • WildEmily Hughes
  • Call Me Tree – Maya Christina González

Activism[edit]

In 2006 the National Student Genderblind Campaign[57] was created as a collaborative grassroots organization intended to educate college students, administrators, and others throughout the United States. The NSGC advocates for the implementation of gender-inclusive dorm room and bathroom options.

Twin siblings Emma Moore and Abi Moore[58] founded a campaign, Pinkstinks, in London in May 2008[59] to raise awareness of the damage caused by gender stereotyping of children.[60][61] Pinkstinks claims that the marketing of gender-specific products to young children encourages girls to limit their ambitions later in life.[59][62]

In a 2014 campaign, the United States-based grassroots group Play Unlimited announced the month-long observance of No Gender December.[63][64][65]

In 2016, Canada came out with the "No Big Deal" campaign which is a "positive affirming response to the recent conflict around transgender peoples' pronouns."[66] This campaign encourages people to ask what pronouns people identify as, instead of just assuming based on people's looks. It also tries to make different pronouns easier for people to understand and grasp.[67]

Gender-neutral lawsuits[edit]

Jones v. Bon Appetit Management Company et al[edit]

In February 2014, former catering worker Valeria Jones sued employer Bon Appetit Management Co. in Oregon for US$518,000 after co-workers repeatedly referred to Jones as female. Jones did not identify as either male or female and when applying to work at Bon Appetit, purposely never filled out the male or female identification question. They repeatedly informed co-workers that they did not want to be identified using male or female gender pronouns and asked managers to address the employees as a group and educate them about gender identity.[68] Jones's suit states that the complaint to human resources was never resolved and the managers did not follow through per their requests, prompting their resignation.[68]

Zzyym v. Tillerson[edit]

In September 2014, Dana Zzyym, an American U.S. veteran, tried to apply for a passport. Instead of labeling their gender as male or female on the application form, they "wrote 'intersex' below the 'sex' category" and "requested 'X' as an acceptable marker."[69] They presented a birth certificate which labels Zzyym as neither male nor female. Zzyym was born with ambiguous genitalia and identifies as intersex. The State Department declined Zzyym's application. They have sued the State Department, "saying the federal government violated the Constitution's guarantees of due process rights and discriminated against Zzyym based on gender."[70] In November 2016, the court issued the ruling in favor of Zzyym. But as of October 2017, the case has been reopened due to the State Department's continued refusal of a gender marker that is neither male nor female on its passport applications.[71]

Jamie Shupe[edit]

On April 27, 2016, Jamie Shupe filed a petition to no longer assume the designation of male or female. Shupe, a retired United States Army sergeant, was born with male anatomy and changed their gender to female later in life. But Shupe still struggled finding their gender identity in the confines of either being male or female. As time progressed, Shupe recognized as being of non-binary gender status. When they brought the petition to court, Judge Amy Holmes Hehn granted the position of approving non-binary as a legal gender designation by saying: "the sex of Jamie Shupe is hereby changed from female to non-binary. Notice of this legal change shall be posted in a public place in Multnomah County as required by law."[72] Since Shupe's medical records affirmed that they were neither male nor female and the ambiguity of the statute did not require transition, Judge Holmes Hehn was able to grant Shupe's request. Shupe's accomplishment is a significant advance toward government recognition of non-binary individuals.

Criticism[edit]

Much as with similar approaches to dealing with racism and ethnicity, not recognising and taking account of participants' sex can be harmful. It posits that it functions in a post-sexism society where women are no longer treated differently than men on the basis of their sex. Meanwhile, gendered treatment prevails all over the world. Of a study of organisations which offered women-only services, 23% said that their reason was based on women's inequality and the desire to address that imbalance; 20% that women-only spaces promote female development and empowerment; 18% that they were providing a service not being met by unisex services and which focused on the specific needs of women.[73]

The legal test of the "reasonable person" has been criticised for being genderblind to be applied in some areas of the law, particularly sexual harassment. Women are subjected to more normalised and endemic sexual harassment than men. On the grounds of this, the American case of Ellison v. Brady 924 F.2d 872 (1991), the court held that "a sex-blind reasonable person standard tends to be male-based and tends to systematically ignore the experiences of women".[74]

Studies indicate a broad support for single-sex service options to remain available. Of 1000 women polled by the Women's Resource Centre, 97% stated that women should have the option of accessing female-only services if they were victims of sexual assault. 57% indicated that they would choose a women-only gym over a mixed gym.[75] Single-sex services can have a benefit in providing greater comfort and engaging participants who would otherwise not get involved.[76]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • Bojarska, Katarzyna (2012). "Responding to lexical stimuli with gender associations: A Cognitive–Cultural Model". Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 32: 46–61. doi:10.1177/0261927X12463008.